I Shot Jesse James

I Shot Jesse James is a 1949 American western film written and directed by Samuel Fuller. Fuller took the liberty of adding a love story to the tragic life and demise of Robert Ford, who even today is best remembered as the dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard!! Samuel Fuller’s directorial debut, starred Preston Foster, Barbara Britton, and John Ireland as Bob Ford, it was reported to have cost a mere $110,000, being shot in ten days on rented sets at the Republic Studios. It earned him $5,000.[1][2][4]

This was the first film directed by Samuel Fuller. The producer was Robert Lippert, who gave total freedom to Fuller as long as the budget was low. The result was a financial success considering the amount that was invested and it established the pattern that Fuller’s films would follow: low budget, but control of the film by Fuller.[2]

16 August 2005 | by alexandre michel liberman (tmwest) (S. Paulo, Brazil)

The project began when independent producer Robert L. Lippert tracked down Fuller after reading his 1944 newspaper-themed novel The Dark Page. In his 2002 memoir A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking, Fuller recalled Lippert saying, “I’m interested in backing you so that you can turn one of your stories into a movie… What’ve you got? …

I want to do a little film with a good story, Sammy,” Fuller quotes Lippert as saying, “where we can have some fun and both make a profit.”[4]

If ever a film deserved to be called “noir” it is this one. Apart from being filmed in black and white, but more black than white, it is the story of a man so blinded by love that all through the film you feel his anguish and desperation.[2]

16 August 2005 | by alexandre michel liberman (tmwest) (S. Paulo, Brazil)

John Ireland, whom Fuller had admired in Red River (1948), plays a slow-witted if likable Ford, nursing a broken heart in the wake of his fateful shot. Marinating in self-loathing, he’s sentenced to relive the moment that defined him in the public eye, taking a stage job in which he reenacts his already mythologized assassination.[3]

Fuller insists, in his inimitable style, that he did not want to make a conventional western. “Making just another Western wasn’t going to give me a hard-on. Holdups, revolvers, leather gloves, and galloping horses didn’t do anything for me. The real aggression and violence in the film would be happening inside the head of a psychotic, delusional killer.”[4]

This skewed take on a legendary tale broke from the traditional moral clarity of the genre and anticipated the postwar procession of brooding “psychological” westerns (Shane, High Noon). Constant close-ups of Ford create an atmosphere of smothering anxiety; the story line hinges as much on the suppression of violence as on its release.[3]

Barbara Britton is outstanding as C[y]nthy Waters… She is beautiful [with] an incredibly modern look for a film that was made in 1949, [reminiscent] of Nicole Kidman. She is unreachable to Ford, he knew that as a fugitive their love could not survive, but he did not realize that as a cowardly killer, even though he was pardoned, the people would hate him and the odds would be that she would not accept him. She was [unwittingly] the cause of his tragedy.[2]

16 August 2005 | by alexandre michel liberman (tmwest) (S. Paulo, Brazil)

It was a very dark film with Fuller, seemingly, using night-for-day shots to keep Ford imprisoned in the blackness which would jolt awkwardly when segued into the accompanying sunlit reverse-angle shots, but even that was not enough to maintain the pitch of the character’s torment, through the often elastic pacing. The problem was that Ford’s confused psyche was left short-changed by the usage of the fictional Cynthia Waters character to articulate much of his humiliation – as good as Barbara Brittton’s performance was, it was built on her expositing of his dilemmas which left him with nothing to do but glower.

That said, the most striking aspect of the film was how much all that glowering foreshadowed Gene Vincent – all that was missing was the black leather!!

[1] Wikipedia. I Shot Jesse James. Retrieved 16 January 2017.
[2] IMDb. I Shot Jesse James (1949). Retrieved 16 January 2017.
[3] The Criterion Collection. Eclipse Series 5: The First Films of Samuel Fuller. By Nick Pinkerton, Posted on August 13, 2007. Retrieved 16 January 2017.
[4] TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES. I SHOT JESSE JAMES. By Bret Wood. Retrieved 16 January 2017.

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